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8 January 2007
Aphrodisiacs The Beginning Of The War Against Erectile Dysfunction
by Paul Aitken

I was first exposed to the concept of male impotence while watching Three's Company. I was in my late teens at the time so erectile dysfunction was pretty much the last thing on my mind. The only time I ever suffered it was when I was so drunk I didn't care. The idea of not getting it up when you needed to was pretty foreign to me. But the plight of poor Stanley Roper affected me deeply. You weren't supposed to like Mr. Roper. He was set up to be the token jerk of the show. Nevertheless I considered Stanley to be one of the most pitiable creations of the television era. Not only did he suffer the withering and constant hectoring of his long-frustrated wife, but he also had to suffer his own frustrations when he was attracted to other women.

Stanley wanted to have sex. He just couldn't. It was a feeling I understood all too well but at least I had the option of, ahem, taking matters into my own hands. Not so Stanley. Not only did he suffer the loss of masculine stature, he also suffered blue-balls every day of his hellish life. At the age of 19 I hoped and prayed I would not end up like Mr. Roper.

Erectile dysfunction (ED - a more accurate and medically forgiving term than "impotence") has likely been the bane of aging men for as long as we've had dicks. An Egyptian papyrus dated to 1700 BCE recommends a poultice of thorns and honey be applied to the penis as a treatment. King David famously suffered from ED in his declining years as have most men through the ages if they lived long enough. Accurate statistics are hard to come by given the embarrassment and shame associated with "not getting it up" but it's been estimated that by the time they reach Mr. Roper's age (55-60) most men will have had some experience with ED. A sizeable minority are, like Mr. Roper, unable to achieve an erection of any kind... ever.

Then as now, ED was a big problem. Status and sex are probably the two greatest desirables in a man's life and as Mr. Roper learned, "impotence" affects one's prospects for both. Accordingly, through the ages there have been many supposed cures. For the great bulk of human history this has taken the form of aphrodisiacs. Almost every culture at every time has developed some concoction that serves to enhance sexual vigor. Some of these were meant to be ingested, others applied topically. While some were (are) innocuous (various herbs and oils), a number were either disgusting (frog bones, monkey dung, nail clippings, semen, bat blood, menstrual blood etc.) or painful (cayenne peppers swallowed or rubbed directly on the penis). It would seem that the concept of "No-Pain-No-Gain" goes back a long way.

The efficacy of these folk cures is still subject to much debate. In fact, a new field of scientific endeavor called pharmacosexology was brought into existence to study the affects of such concoctions on both sexual interest and erectile function. Generally speaking, aphrodisiacs arose in two ways. The first was primarily associative. Anything that looked like a big raging hard-on (rhinoceros horn - any kind of horn really, carrots, bananas, bones, roots etc.) seemed a logical place to start. Then there were the genitals themselves, both of defeated enemies and of animals. Cave drawings depict prehistoric men munching on testicles and while the point of this practice is obviously speculative, studies of contemporary primitive societies suggest the purpose is at least to some degree, virilization. That is to say, the ingestion of the masculine essence of an animal or foe was thought to make the eater more masculine himself. While this may seem ridiculous to the modern observer it should be noted that the concept is alive and well in many parts of the world; the Far East in particular. In fact, the market for tiger's testicles has driven the South China tiger to the brink of extinction. While these putative aphrodisiacs may have had some nutritional value, by and large, they work about as well as one would expect. Erectile dysfunction is not, and has never been cured by the ingestion of something just because it a) looks like a dick/testicles or b) is in fact a dick/testicles.

Another class of aphrodisiacs was developed out of trial and error and these are likely to have had some physiologic effect. In this group we include such things as chocolate (used by the Incas), aniseed, figs, garlic, fennel, licorice, ginger, nutmeg, oyster, papayas, chili peppers, yohimbe (derived from the bark of a West African evergreen) and of course the infamous Spanish Fly (actually dried cantharide beetles). Research is ongoing into if and how these substances work. Some are thought to contain substances that either mimic the action of sex hormones or trigger their production. Aniseed (favored by the ancient Greeks and Romans), fennel and papaya for instance, have estrogenic effects. Molecules in yohimbe have demonstrated as affinity for androgen receptors and it is thought to stimulate testosterone production. An extract of yohimbe is, in fact, prescribed as a drug to treat erectile dysfunction.

Others like garlic and ginger have been found to stimulate blood flow and still others are believed to work by way of penile irritation. Into the later category we put cayenne pepper and Spanish fly.

Spanish fly is probably the best known aphrodisiac of all time. Ancient Assyrian tablets recommended its ingestion as a treatment for impotence. Nero's wife reportedly administered it to dinner guests in the hope of generating indiscretions which she could then use for blackmail purposes. Henry IV is believed to have taken it and it was reportedly slipped into Louis XIV's food so as to rekindle his interest in his mistress. Marquis de Sade did the same to guests at an orgy. While the sale of Spanish fly is illegal in the US and is restricted in most countries, it's still being sold on Ebay (in name at least).

Spanish fly is made from a beetle that secretes an acidic substance called cantharidin as a defensive agent. This stuff is toxic! When the body digests this beetle, the cantharidin is removed by the kidneys and excreted in the urine as an acid. Cantharidin causes irritation and burning wherever is passes, including the urogenital tract. In small enough doses this takes the form of swelling and itching, sensations associated with arousal. You get hot and bothered all right, just not in a good way. Cantharidin can cause kidney and gastrointestinal inflammation, even death is consumed in high enough quantities. While in proper doses it can induce an erection in both humans and animals, it's a much more effective poison than aphrodisiac. But for the bulk of human history there weren't a lot of options. If ingesting acid was what it took to restake your claim to masculinity, well, then that's what you did. At least until modern medical science jumped into the game. But that's a story for another week.

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